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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – As Jeff Gordon crossed the finish line at Martinsville Speedway to pick up his first win of the season, the chemistry was clicking between the No. 24 crew.
"You guys are awesome!" Gordon screamed on his radio. "Never give up! What a fight!"
"That's right, champ!" replied crew chief Alan Gustafson.
The relationship wasn't so rosy three months ago, when driver and crew chief had a talk following a 10th-place finish at New Hampshire. Gordon had expected a win that day, at minimum a strong finish, and he failed to lead a single lap.
"I had a bad attitude, and he and I had a heart-to-heart conversation afterward, and I'm so proud of him for stepping up," Gordon said. "The things that I said, the attitude I had, was just not the way we were going to get ourselves into Victory Lane. To me, that turned things around.
"I was like, 'You know what? I've got to go and work as hard as I can, give these guys everything I've got because they're working their butts off, and let's pull it together.' I think from that race on, we started seeing improvement, and sometimes you've got to have those moments, and I'm proud that we did."
Gordon slowly pulled himself into contention for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, and might have made it in if not for late-race shenanigans by several different drivers in the deciding race at Richmond. NASCAR chairman Brian France ultimately ruled that Gordon was unfairly affected by the manipulations and took the unprecedented step of adding him to the Chase field as a 13th driver.
He's made the most of his chance, slowly climbing through the standings through the seven Chase races. Gordon's win on Sunday moved him into third place, just 27 points behind Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, who go to Texas Motor Speedway tied for the lead.
Gustafson called the post-New Hampshire talk a "reset."
"We said, 'Hey, being negative is not going to do any good, we're going to have to go at this and be positive and fight hard and put ourselves in position and try to win some races,'" Gustafson said.
Once France put them into the Chase two days before the opening race, the focus has been forward.
"It is a special chance to compete for a championship at this level, and you don't know how many of those you're going to get," Gustafson said. "When we didn't have it for a couple days, that was one of the most terrible feelings in the world. We're not going to squander this opportunity."
It won't be easy to catch Kenseth and Johnson, and Gordon knows he needs to race for wins over the final three stops.
Gustafson broached splitting with Gordon during their discussion, but Gordon said he believes in his crew chief and is proud of what they've accomplished this season.
"When you're Jeff Gordon's crew chief, a lot of people like to say things when things aren't going well, and it makes it even tougher to be in his position," Gordon said. "So when things aren't going well, the toughest thing is to see him go through criticism or to criticize himself. When we're not doing well, I can tell you, I'm not questioning him, I'm questioning myself. ... Once he stops believing in me, and I stop believing in him, then we're done. Luckily for us, that has not been the case this year, and that's why I think we've been able to stay so strong and come back and be where we're at today."
CONTACT SPORT: NASCAR chairman Brian France has made it clear he likes exciting racing and an on-track product that has fans talking for days.
He got it at Martinsville Speedway in the Truck Series race when Ty Dillon spun Kevin Harvick while the two were fighting for position late in the race. Harvick was running second at the time and the contact from Dillon led to flared tempers on pit road and harsh words after the incident.
"All of that is a part of NASCAR," France said Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
"When you're talking about late in the race, listen, this is a contact sport," he said. "We have gotten where we've gotten because we're able to have the best drivers in the world, the best team owners, and then give them a package that creates the most exciting racing. We don't always get it right, but we're really working diligently to make sure that we do as much as possible."
France expects that level of intensity to carry over into the final three Sprint Cup Series races of the season. Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson go into Texas this weekend tied for the points lead, with Jeff Gordon 27 points behind in third and Harvick just one point behind Gordon.
"I hope the last three events go down to the wire, and it looks like they will," France said. "This is a very close battle going down to the wire, and what we saw about Martinsville, again, this is a contact sport. You are going to have times late in the race where things are going to happen.
"We expect in a truck race or any race, drivers with a faster car to have contract. That's NASCAR that's what we're about. So I expect tight racing over the final three."
AN RCR DIVORCE: Although Clint Bowyer left Richard Childress Racing on good terms at the end of the 2011 season, he can understand the acrimony that comes with a departure from the organization.
That was his take on the Martinsville fracas between Kevin Harvick and Ty Dillon after their contact in the Truck Series race.
Harvick blamed Dillon and older brother, Austin, as the reason he's leaving RCR at the end of the season, saying team owner Richard Childress favored his grandsons and the future of the organization is centered on the boys. The accusations infuriated Childress, who said the brothers have earned their seats at RCR.
Bowyer this week laughed at the entire episode, and said it was a product of Harvick and Childress bidding adieu after 13 years together. Sponsors Budweiser and Jimmy John's are following Harvick to Stewart-Haas Racing.
"That's a divorce," Bowyer said. "You ever seen a divorce? That's like her taking not only the furniture and the silverware — she took the dog, too."
Harvick apologized a day after the incident and then finished sixth in the Sprint Cup race. He's got three races remaining with RCR.
"That's a divorce and then you wake up and realize that you have got to live with them for three more weeks," Bowyer said. "And you're like, 'Oh, oh. Well, baby, I didn't mean it. You ain't that bad. Can you bring the dog back for the next three weeks, a little joint custody? But I still want a divorce.'"
Bowyer turned serious when he said the incident overshadowed Darrell Wallace Jr.'s victory in the Truck Race. Wallace's win was the first by a black driver in a NASCAR national series race since 1963.
"It's a sad day when we had such a historic moment in the sport and the only thing that we all talked about and overshadowed all of it is what happened with Kevin and Ty," Bowyer said. "Divorces are tough. Everybody knows that. But unfortunately that's what we all find as entertainment. (Wallace) passed a guy on the outside at Martinsville in no-man's land and won the race. That doesn't happen and certainly was really cool."